When Tim Durken laced up his high school wrestling shoes, he never imagined he’d eventually work for the company that produced them. The shoes were ASICS, the iconic footwear brand whose products have been worn by Bruce Lee, Olympic athletes, and everyday runners alike. Today, as associate general counsel, Durken is helping the legendary company expand its legacy brand and navigate its ongoing shift to digital.
The company has built a reputation for innovation, but few people realize it all started with an octopus. In 1949, Kihachiro Onitsuka was creating athletic shoes for customers in Japan and needed to find a way to produce better traction. Inspiration hit during dinner: Onitsuka noticed the gripping power of the octopus’s sucker in his salad and mimicked the feature in a shoe called the Onitsuka Tiger. The company later added its patented gel cushioning technology to remove weight and introduce better cushioning and flexibility.
Durken was well aware of the company’s reputation when he joined the organization in March of 2020. “I was excited to work for ASICS because of its strong brand and commitment to innovation and science,” he says. After spending ten years at law firms and then another three years in-house at a lighting company, he wanted to leverage his growing skills and learn more about direct-to-consumer, e-commerce, and privacy.
As the first attorney in ASICS North America’s Boston office, he had broad responsibilities including complex contracts, litigation, compliance, and data privacy. Not only was Durken the first company attorney in Boston, he was the only internal attorney other than the general counsel on its legal team. Then, in October of 2020, the general counsel left the organization.
“Corporate restructuring work is underrated when it comes to preparing attorneys for in-house roles because it forces you to get comfortable coming into fast-paced environments to learn new businesses and fix problems.”
Suddenly, Durken was working with only the help of his paralegal and support of his global colleagues. On less than two weeks’ notice, he took over management of a team of a half dozen contract attorneys and outside law firms, working on everything from litigation to real estate to privacy matters. As several litigations were heating up, Durken was facing mediations, discovery deadlines, and shifting strategies. Prior to the GC’s departure, ASICS legal had started recruiting for two open corporate counsel positions. Durken turned his attention to filling those roles and had the opportunity to hand-pick the very best candidates and build the new team himself.
While legal issues are important, Durken often reminds himself that ASICS is a business. “We sell sneakers,” he says. “Our job as a department is to minimize risks and support sales and customer-focused functions.” That mindset guided his recruitment process, and Durken ultimately brought in two experienced lawyers with different backgrounds. But while their approaches vary, they share a willingness to contribute and a desire to learn.
With the new internal team in place, Durken was able to take work back from outside contract attorneys to provide better and more timely service to the company. He gave his new colleagues autonomy and divided up responsibilities by location (ASICS has a second US office in California) and business units so each would have a primary legal contact. The move has allowed his team members to build better relationships, foster collaboration, and create efficiencies.
Durken joined the team at ASICS just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, bringing major changes to retail and professional settings. In leading a new team through uncertain times, he’s made an extra effort to promote a sense of belonging. The onboarding and rebuild of the team also benefited from Durken’s collaboration with and the support of his senior legal colleague visiting from ASICS’ Japan headquarters in 2021. Virtual social hours like occasional trivia nights and other recreational activities have helped new colleagues deepen their relationships. In official online meetings, ASICS legal employees not only track and collaborate on key deliverables but also share ideas for improvement, requests for help, achievements, and appreciation for others.
Prior to moving in-house, Durken worked at both big and boutique law firms, where he focused on corporate restructuring cases in New York and Delaware. He’s relied on those experiences to guide him at ASICS. “Corporate restructuring work is underrated when it comes to preparing attorneys for in-house roles because it forces you to get comfortable coming into fast-paced environments to learn new businesses and fix problems,” he explains.
“Legal has to understand and mitigate risk without unnecessarily blocking the business so that it cannot compete.”
Lawyers with restructuring experience are adept at understanding what financial statements actually mean for a business and therefore know what material issues could kill a business or help it thrive. Durken leverages this experience to help him understand his current industry, see what ASICS is trying to accomplish, and prioritize legal work accordingly.
All of this helps Durken keep his team focused on business as he aligns the legal strategy to allow management to meet its stated goals. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “Legal has to understand and mitigate risk without unnecessarily blocking the business so that it cannot compete.” To strike the right balance, he explains trade-offs and options to all stakeholders so everyone can work together to determine the right path forward.
With his new team in place, Durken has pushed through a backlog of contracts and completed several big projects that were once stalled in the pipeline. Now he can be more proactive on important issues like brand enforcement, ASICS’ digital shift, and sustainability. The company is actively hosting virtual race events, developing new products, focusing on emerging technologies, and collaborating with artists and brands. ASICS is continuing its long history of innovation, and its legal team is in place and ready to support that work.
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.:
“We applaud Tim’s achievement and recognition in Modern Counsel and look forward to continuing to work together.”
–Christian Keeney, Shareholder
“Tim is smart, practical, and strategic in his approach to complex matters. It is an absolute pleasure to work with him.”
–Shaun Crosner, Partner
Squire Patton Boggs:
“Tim is the rare combination of thoughtful and practical. He helps business people identify and resolve legal issues in a manner that enables them to achieve their commercial goals. Tim seeks to find solutions that advance ASICS’ business and to help his internal clients make sound and informed decisions.”
–Alan Friel, Partner